JoAnn Curtis loves everything about the M&T Bank Glee: College A Cappella Competition.
She loves working with the groups from college across the region, and is impressed with their level of professionalism and the work they put into their performances.
“There is nothing about this competition, literally nothing, that I don’t like,” she said.
The same sentiment no doubt applies to the audience and the performers.
“It’s really cool to see so many people come to Carlisle and to the Carlisle Theatre specifically to see this event every year,” said David Blosser of the Dickinson Infernos.
In addition to the Infernos, this year’s event featured the Drexel University’s TrebleMakers, 8 to the Bar, Dickinson’s Octals, University of Maryland Baltimore County Cleftomaniacs, Stockton University’s Stockapella, York College’s Rhapsody A Cappella and St. Joseph’s University’s 54th & City A Cappella.
This year, UMBC’s Cleftomaniacs overwhelmed the judges, earning the grand champion title, as well as awards for vocal percussion and choreography. This year, each of Dickinson’s a cappella groups earned accolades, with the Infernos placing third overall and the Octals receiving the people’s choice award.
The road to the Glee stage starts with an application process and with Curtis’ constant watch for potential participants. United Way staff, and even some of Curtis’ friends and family, spend a lot of time listening to the audio and video recordings that accompany all the applications.
Sometimes, Curtis said she will play a recording without telling the listener the name of the group, and ask them to rate the group, a particularly useful exercise when she can’t decide between applicants.
Previous appearances at Glee are no guarantee of a future invitation.
“Every year kids graduate and new kids come in. I take every year completely independent of the year prior,” Curtis said.
Unfortunately, they do have to turn down a few groups each year, but Curtis tries to do so gently and in a way that encourages the group to keep working.
The competition had more applicants than ever this year, but Curtis said she’s already hearing from groups who want to be part of the event’s 10th anniversary event, which will be held on April 18, 2020.
Glee is a good competition that features talented groups, said Ellis Tucci, musical director of the Octals.
Established in 1996, the all-male group takes its name from the fact that there were only eight members that first year. In the years since, Tucci and Octals president Xavier Wright said there has never been as few as eight members.
Along with Blosser, first-year student Erin Lowe is a member of the Dickinson Infernos, a 12-member group that formed in 2003 as a space for students to perform contemporary a cappella.
“We aim to engage many different types of listeners whether they’re more interested in the crooner music or pop music and everything in between,” Blosser said.
Lowe said the a cappella groups are different from other options on campus because it is student-driven, which requires the students to draw on each other’s strengths to improve.
Some members are more skilled at dancing so they can help the others along. Others may better understand musical notation and will share that knowledge, Blosser said.
Plus, the all-student atmosphere means groups like the Octals are really a bunch of friends singing together more than anything else.
“That’s one of the reasons why we sound so good. When you’re with all your buddies and you love singing and you sound good, it’s an intangible kind of factor that comes together,” Wright said.
“I’m glad it’s just a student group because if we had a faculty member from the music department in with us, it would feel like a class,” Tucci said.
That students from different academic and personal backgrounds can come to a rehearsal space and be united by the music they perform speaks to the power of the liberal arts, Blosser said.
“A cappella, at least here at Dickinson, it’s more about fostering a community for people who love music and want to have fun,” Blosser said.
Both groups take a democratic approach to determining which songs make their set lists. A list of songs is created, and members of the group vote on which ones make the cut.
Rehearsing and competing
While they differ in duration and frequency, the rehearsals for a cappella groups tend to follow a similar process. Different sections work together — baritones with baritones, for example, or sopranos with sopranos — before coming back as a whole to blend everything together, work on the dynamics and, eventually, add the choreography.
Wright said members of the Octals spend more time at rehearsal each week than they do in class.
“It is a really big commitment. We take it like being on a sports team,” he said.
Everyone is at the rehearsals because they want to be there, Lowe said. Joining a group like the Infernos comes with expectations, and its members are prepared to engage with those expectations and with each other.
Those rehearsals are key to combating nerves on the day of the event.
“We’re going to do the best we possibly can to prepare. If we get there and someone is absolutely blowing it out of the water, we can’t rehearse more on the spot. We’re going to do the best we can. I think our best is going to be pretty good,” Tucci said.
Wright said he warns the men in his group that the Glee competition is their biggest concert of the year.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys in the group. We never know how they’re going to react, and this concert is way bigger than the ones we have at Dickinson,” Wright said.
But the groups always seem to have a welcoming audience at the Carlisle Theatre.
Blosser said he was excited that the Infernos had been invited once more, and is thankful for the continued support the group receives.
Curtis said the audience at Glee is “lively.” Each year she asks the audience how many have attended before, and about half are repeat attendees.
“I love the audience as much as the students do,” Curtis said.
Glee tickets go on sale each year on Groundhog Day, and every year a couple hundred or so are sold almost immediately. Then, there’s a steady flow of sales up until the event.
The event is essential to the United Way as it, along with the U-Turn yard sale event, are the two fundraisers that fund the administrative costs of the organization so that every dollar raised during the annual campaign can go back to the community.
“The only way we can make sure that can happen is by doing these fundraisers,” Curtis said.